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Student Activists Take Matters into Their Own Hands

How student activists are using state legislation to protect their rights under Title IX.

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is working to threaten the rights of sexual assault survivors on college campuses and their protections under the Title IX legislation of 1972. Over the past 18 months, the Department of Education has, quietly and not-so-quietly, rolled back protections around gender equality, sexual violence and the rights of sexual minorities. These rights include access to higher education, safely using public restrooms and recourse to fair justice against perpetrators at universities.

However, despite these national threats, college student organizers and activists are demonstrating their power on local campuses in Massachusetts and across the US to create a roadmap for enacting grassroots progressive legislation at the state level that protects the rights of survivors.

Immediately following the election of Donald Trump, students came together on college campuses around the country to demand that their university administrations solidify their commitments to protecting the rights of sexual assault survivors. However, with students focused on impact within their schools, activism has been largely siloed. Due to the high concentration of academic institutions in Massachusetts, student organizers in Boston reached out to each other to demand something bigger.

The Every Voice Coalition was formed as a coordinating body for young activists to push through local statewide legislation regarding Title IX. The coalition brought together students, parents, activists and administrators to draft legislation that focused on protecting the rights of college student survivors. The development of the legislation was based in the lived realities and experiences of survivors.

Survivors themselves testified and wrote two pieces of legislation and presented them to the Massachusetts State Legislature. In spring 2017, students from over 17 different campuses in Massachusetts testified in support of the two bills before the Joint Committee on Higher Education, and student organizers collected over 4,000 signatures of support. In April 2018, 200 students from 21 different campuses in Massachusetts came to a rally at the statehouse, which included speakers from state representatives, survivors and nonprofit partners. The coalition collected 6,500 signatures in Massachusetts and 83,000 signatures globally in support of the bills.

Both Bills

The two bills that came out of this movement are the first step in combating sexual violence at a statewide level in Boston. The first bill institutes anonymous surveys on the prevalence and perception of sexual violence on college campuses. Commonly known as “campus climate surveys,” this bill helps campuses in identifying underlying causes of sexual violence, creating data to be used in research on sexual violence, and outlining possible solutions for a campus community. The second bill provides training for students and employees on sexual assault prevention, as well as mandates basic support and protection for survivors who are coming forward to report assaults. Together, these two bills will change the nature of sexual violence on campuses in Massachusetts.

The bills have seen movement in the statehouse and currently sit in front of the Massachusetts House Committee on Ways and Means, awaiting action. Student organizers are rallying and lobbying to push these bills through. When passed, they represent the success of a grassroots, student-led, survivor-centric movement to protect their rights from federal attack. The formation of the student coalition and the centering of survivor voices upon which the legislation was developed represent a blueprint for action that can be replicated around the US.

When student survivors bring their voices together, their power can be felt through the halls of a state legislature and all the way to Congress. This is a national effort that highlights how change is made and led by young people. The coalition urges students and community members in Massachusetts to pressure the legislature to act, by calling their local representative and House leadership to express their support of these bills before July 31. They are also calling on student organizers across the country to leverage the legislature in their favor.

In the face of attack, young people have a variety of tools. The legislature can be one, so long as all voices come to the table and shout together.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: wk1003mike / Shutterstock.com